This post was written by Lindy Shopper.
There’s been a flurry of Billie Holiday discussion online today, with DJs Rob Moreland (via Facebook) and Jerry Almonte (via blog) writing about danceable Billie Holiday tunes. Billie’s music is absolutely inspiring and so is her signature look. The images of Billie Holiday with clusters of gardenias in her hair are iconic – so much so, that flowers, or clusters of flowers, have become a quintessential vintage look for singers, dancers, and (as many Etsy listings tout) brides.
Billie’s flowered tresses came about by accident, according to biographer Bud Kliment (via the Human Flower Project). The story goes that “During Holiday’s tenure at Kelly’s Stable, Sylvia Sims, a fellow jazz singer, furnished Holiday with an accessory that was to become a lasting part of her image. One night before a performance, Holiday burned her hair with a curling iron. Sims, who was in the room with her, promptly went to a club down the street, where the coat check girls were selling flowers. Sims bought a big white gardenia and gave it to Holiday, who wore it that night to cover the burned section of her hair. She liked wearing the flower so much that she began to put a gardenia in her hair before every performance.”
Gardenias are beautiful, delicate white flowers with a lovely and potent scent. I was delighted to discover that the giant bush behind my house was a gardenia bush, after it blossomed with gusto this past spring. The smell was intoxicating and made my backyard a wonderful and fragrant place to be (in spite of my brown thumb and allergies to the outdoors). I plucked some of these flowers to wear at the G.I. Jive in Greenville, S.C. this past June, placing them carefully in a vase inside a cooler so they would survive the trip to South Carolina. At the dance that night, several people commented on the flowers’ fragrance and were surprised that I had transported real gardenias to wear in my hair. It was definitely worth the effort, as the gardenias achieved the desired Billie effect and fit wonderfully in the curl of a victory roll; however, by the end of the night, the June humidity and heat (as well as additional heat from dancers) caused the gardenias to wilt. I presume that all those photos of Billie with gardenias were taken shortly after she took the stage, or in winter…or that she perhaps wore a more hearty variety of gardenias.
(Side note: There is some debate in the Human Flower Project article about what it means to wear the flower on the right side above the ear or the left side above the ear. I notice that Billie wears hers on the left. I wear my flowers on the left so my lead doesn’t get a flower directly in the face when we are in closed position or dancing Balboa. I wonder if that was a consideration for her side selection…)
My gardenia bush lost its blooms several months ago, but there are a number of beautiful and practical artificial options to tide me over until next spring. Etsy has become my go-to place for hair flowers and the crafts-people on Etsy do not disappoint. Here are some options to help you achieve Lady Day’s signature look:
A lovely silk specimen from seller ellasalley
Gardenia with a pearl and rhinestone center
Bloom with a jeweled brooch in the center
Gardenia made from air dried clay
Another lovely specimen
Enough gardenias to do a proper Billie